For the past two weeks, my brain has been in overdrive. It doesn’t matter if I’m standing on the sidelines of a soccer game, waiting in the check-out at the grocery store, or chatting with friends on Facebook. I am in 100% survival mode.
Like most around the country, my community’s school district is facing massive budget cuts. The principals have been weighing their options for the past six months, knowing the day was going to come when they would have to make tough choices. Rumors flew around town about what was on “the list”, leading to long lines of concerned citizens waiting to speak at every school board gathering. Finally, two weeks ago “the list” was made public.
I have been told over and over again that every parent has their own agenda, their own priority programs. Every educator has a list of the services they would classify as critical. We all know something has to give, and I don’t envy those who have to make the final decision about what stays and what goes. That being the case, I have tried to level my passionate pleas with a large dose of compassion.
My priority? Our Advanced and Accelerated program. It's the gem of our school district, the thing that sets us apart from every other district in our county, one of the only programs of its kind left standing in our state. It’s the program that rescued my son, and many others like him, from academic boredom and potentially more serious issues. A program unfortunately high on the list of those to be cut.
Before our son ever entered the public school realm, his pre-school teachers informed us that he was a very bright boy. Being our first child, my only expectation regarding his kindergarten experience was that he would be successful because he was a smart, well-liked kid. Ha! For two years, I cried my way through every parent-teacher conference and every special meeting called to discuss our son’s behavior difficulties. Rarely, if ever, did we get to the part about his academic talents. Never did they attribute his behavior to those typical of a gifted student who is not being challenged. He spent hours sitting in the principal’s office or lined up against the fence at recess. He wasn’t labeled a gifted child, but a bad child. And he felt it.
The summer after second grade, we moved to Michigan and my only real fear was how our son would adjust to his new school. Little did I know we had nothing to fear and everything to gain. Our son was only a few weeks into second grade when his teacher contacted us to let us know they would be pulling him out of class several times a week to work independently with the Accelerated Learning teacher. He would also participate in other pull-out groups with students who were recognized as advanced learners in math and language arts. This was the beginning of what I would call an educational miracle, for both my son and for me. No more tears at parent conferences, only conversations about what else could be done to keep him challenged. Little by little I could see our son’s behavior issues melt away. Five years later, the boy who sat in the principal’s office on a weekly basis is a distant memory.
The entire yearly budget for our Advanced & Accelerated program, including teachers, supplies, coaches and entry fees for activities such as Destination Imagination and Science Olympiad, is about $40,000. A small drop in the financial bucket considering the district needs to cut over $1 million. And this is no elitist program; it serves hundreds of students in our district every year. Many more than participate in football, or baseball, or most of the other sports that aren’t under consideration to be cut. But, as I said, I am trying to have compassionate conversations. I’m trying to practice empathy. So, this is what I am advocating: let's save the part-time aide who teaches a wide variety of programs for students who score well on their standardized tests. I would guess close to a hundred 3rd through 5th graders get to participate in programs such as Robotics, Fairy Tales on Trial, Spanish, and Toothpick Bridge Engineering, all taught by this very talented and underpaid woman. The total cost to keep her employed for the school year? $4000. Sounds like a reasonable compromise and a very wise investment of school funds. But, I have been told that the school board does not have time to break down each program into such small components. So, mostly likely the entire program will be axed at tonight’s meeting.
Back to the part where I said I had switched into overdrive. Suddenly, I am on a mission to raise $4000 dollars in private funding. I am asking parents. I am talking to people I know who work for businesses in our community – businesses that rely on engineers, and scientist, and creative thinkers. I am looking at our savings account and wondering how big of a check we could afford to write. For just one year, until we could find some grant money to cover this small portion of the program. The problem hasn’t been a willingness of community members to contribute. The problem is that we are unsure how to move forward without setting a precedent, without creating the assumption that the district doesn’t need to fund the Advanced and Accelerated program because the parents will. How do we avoid making gifted education into pay-to-play? Do we help to fund the position and give our students access to some high quality programs? Or do we play games with the school board and potentially lose the programs for at least one year if not for good?
So many times I want to sit back and let someone else deal with it. But then another parent calls me and says “What can I do?”, and I realize it’s too late to back down.
Honestly, I’m not doing it for my son. He’s in middle school now and too old for most of the programs funded under Advanced and Accelerated. I am doing it for my two daughters, and the other young women who love math and building things, so they are inspired to keep excelling in a male dominated field. More importantly, I am doing it for all of those smart kids whose parents aren’t the ones calling me on the phone. The ones whose parents don’t show up for the conferences and the band concerts. The ones who are more likely to fall through the cracks and never develop their natural gifts. And I’m doing it so no parent in my school district ever has to sit across the table from a teacher and feel as helpless as I once did.